Meeting Othello I
Othello is Venice's chief military leader. He will be dispatched in 1.3 to deal with the "Turk," Christian Europe's most vigorous foe. Despite the reverence in which his name is nearly universally held, his actual name will not be mentioned in the play until 1.3, where the Duke welcomes him to the Senate's deliberations with "Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you/ Against the general enemy Ottoman (3.1.48-49)." Thus, we only learn his name when it is connected with his public duties; when it has to do with his personal life, the epithets are much less praiseworthy. As a matter of fact, the entire first scene is designed to undermine whatever authority Othello may have.
The point is worth pausing on. In an earlier tragedy, Julius Caesar, the great man, like Othello, is also not introduced until 1.2. But in that former tragedy the plebs, who dominate 1.1, are giddy with excitement at Caesar's recent victory over Pompey's sons at Munda. Caesar name and deeds are on everyone's lips. Thus, when all we hear in Othello 1.1 are negative things, we wonder about the possible subterranean forces that will somehow conspire to undermine this great man. Will it be racism? Will it be a disgruntled office-seeker? Will it be an outraged father-in-law? Will it be sexual license under the guise of marriage?
The major strategy for dishonoring Othello in 1.1 is for Iago and Roderigo to paint him as an animalistic black sexual pervert, a "lascivious Moor," an "old black ram" who "even now, now very now" [note the immediacy of the language] is "tupping your [i.e., Brabantio's] white ewe (1.1.88-89)." When this fails to outrage Brabantio, Iago says it again, "you'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary/ horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll/ have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans (1.1.111-113)." In other words, the lascivious Moor, who is "now making the beast/ with two backs" [i.e., 'humping'--1.1.115-116] with Desdemona will beget with her a pack of horses. 'Only animals can result from animalistic acts,' is Iago's approach.
Other strategies to dishonor Othello are evident. As mentioned, Iago never uses his name. He will call him "The Moor" (in Shakespeare's time this would be taken to mean a black African) or, more demeaningly, "His Moorship (1.1.33)." He also criticizes the Moor's language, who rejected his application to become lieutenant "with a bumbast circumstance/ Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war (bombastic military jargon--1.1.13-14)." 'What we have here,' Iago is saying, 'is a sexually perverse black man who cannot communicate other than with inflated military phrases.'
Othello the Honorable
But all this changes in 1.2 and especially in 1.3. When Iago attempts to rile Othello with scurrilously untrue statements that Brabantio to the effect that the "magnifico" has spoken "such scurvy and provoking terms/ Against your honor (1.2.7-8)," Othello answers with a calming, "Let him do his spite; My services which I have done the signiory/ Shall out-tongue his complaints (1.2.17-19)." It is almost as if Othello is a Christ-like figure here, stilling the "Galilean storm" with authoritative words "Peace, be still."
Othello is not worried about the power of Brabantio, despite Iago's characterization of it as "double the Duke's (1.2.14)." Even if his services were not enough to "out-tongue" Brabantio, Othello could draw on his descent "from men of royal siege [royal rule]" and his "demerits" [a word meaning "merits" or "desserts" in Shakespeare's time--1.2.22] from being related to them. Thus, not only can he handle the onslaught of the raging Brabantio with his own deeds, but he has power in reserve if he needs it and which he shall use "when I know that boasting is an honor (1.2.20)." Christ could call on the legions of angels to assist (Mt. 26:53); Othello has his storied lineage. But he need not do this even in this circumstance. All he needs to do is to utter, like Christ, authoritative words (1.2.59), and he gets his way.
In the Senate
His authority is also evident in the Senate. There, he calmly rebuts the emotionally-laden story of Brabantio with an orotundity and confidence that is bolstered by Desdemona's testimony about her love for Othello. Othello is so confident of his blamelessness in the matter that he doesn't have to rely on what he calls his "rude" speech; like a military commander he calls on his "subordinate" (i.e., Desdemona) to tell her story. In addition, he freely admits the major point in contention, that he has married her. "That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,/ It is most true; true I have married her;/ The very head and front of my offending/ Hath this extent, no more (1.3.78-81)."
He is so assured that he even can use the language of charms and magic, which Brabantio has marshaled to accuse him, to rebut the charge, "I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver/ Of my whole course of love--what drugs, what charms,/ What conjuration, and what mighty magic/ (For such proceeding I am charg'd withal)/ I won his daughter (1.3.91-94)." Othello's every word breathes contentment, calm confidence in the power and rightness of the deliberative body, and a sense that he will easily be vindicated.
But all this seems a little too good to be true. Are there any hints in Act I that Othello is on slippier ground than he appears to be? I think so.....
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long